By: Karlie Chalmers, OT Reg (Ont), Psychotherapist
What is Neurodiversity?
“Neurodiversity” is a term arising from the neurodiversity movement – an anti-ableist movement that helps educate folks on brain-based diversity, challenges the myth that divergent brains are ‘less’ functional than typical brains, and teaches folks about the strengths and needs of neurodivergent people. In the neurodiversity umbrella are many diagnostic and experiential categories, including but not limited to:
- Neurodevelopmental differences (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disability, Autism Spectrum Disability, Tourettes, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, communication differences, intellectual disability)
- Neurogenetic differences (Fragile X Syndrome, Down Syndrome, Rett Syndrome, Prader-Willi Syndrome, and many rare genetic conditions)
- Mental Health Differences (Anxiety, Depression, Bipolar, Personality Spectrum Disability, Schizophrenia Spectrum Disability, Dissociative Identity Disability, Phobias, Misophonia, Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Disability, Post-Traumatic Stress Disability, and more)
The Social Model of Disability:
In the Social Model of Disability, the metaphor of a world where everyone has wings is often used. In this world, there would be no elevator or stairs, there would be no need for bicycles, cars, or roads, and folks would largely flit around freely in the sky. A ‘normal’ person in our world would enter this world of winged-folk and quite promptly face barriers, challenges, and additional work just to be able to do normal day-to-day things. They would be “disabled”.
This metaphor shows how “disability” is a subjective category that is based upon a mismatch between the individual’s ability and the environment. In our world’s social environment, a huge amount of pressure is placed upon neurodivergent folks to conform to typical modes of communication, social nuance, and learning.
Our society highly values typical functioning and implicitly demands that neurodivergent people:
- Learn in the same way and at the same speed as others
- Communicate in a neurotypical way
- Not ask for modifications or accommodations that improve or enhance their functioning
- Express themselves solely with speech
- Present without symptoms
- Emotionally regulate and process in a neurotypical way
This can be exhausting and lead to what many call ‘Neurodivergent Burnout” – a condition of exhaustion and overload that can become persistently debilitating and is caused by an enormous effort to constantly adapt to neurotypical expectations.
Accessibility in Action – Adapting ourselves rather than demanding adaptation:
The oppression of neurodiverse people is subtle in some ways. It happens in the way we speak, the way we ostracize or dismiss, and the way in which we place expectations on folks with disability and difference – rather than consider what we can do to match their own style of communication, sensory processing, learning, and ways of being in the world.
When a therapist, teacher, or friend demands an autistic person not misinterpret their sarcasm, repeatedly asks a child with ADHD to “just sit still”, or tells a client with Borderline Personality traits that they must manage their own emotions and learn to self-regulate they reinforce the message “how you are naturally in the world is wrong” and “you have to be like us”. This damages a person’s sense of belonging and ability to thrive.
Instead, we all have a responsibility to meet each other half-way and to seek to understand each other. When we speak with an autistic individual we may need to provide additional detail to instruction, speak literally, recognize that echolalia may be contextual and meaningful or may not be, and speak about a single topic in depth, rather than flit from topic to topic. They may want us to stim with them for calming or to move to a different environment if the one we are in becomes overstimulating.
When we communicate with someone who does not use speech we should observe how they communicate (augmented communication, verbal sounds and intonations, sign language, and visuals) and learn to communicate in these ways. We should honor their modes of communication and become experts in them.
When we meet a person with obsessive compulsive symptoms or anxiety we can learn about their triggers and allow them to guide how much exposure versus reassurance and support they need. We may need to learn to not bring up certain topics or check-in with the person when they arise.
When we interact with someone who has a learning difference we should use multimodal communication and ask them what adaptations they need to process and internalize information.
The core message is we should adapt ourselves and the environment to THEM. Not expect them to build skills or adapt to us when the world is already such a challenging place for them – facing stigma, barriers, and disrupted sense of belonging.
The Strength of Difference
Here at Cambrian Counseling we believe that neurodiversity is as important as biodiversity, and that difference is not weakness. We see the many beautiful strengths of neurodiversity.
Folks with Autism have many superpowers, such as:
- Powerful episodic and sometimes eidetic memory
- Hyperlexia (learning to read at a young age and having a wide vocabulary)
- A powerful sense of justice and honesty
- Passionate and deep interest in one or many topics
- Strength in visual processing abilities
- Punctuality and reliability
- Drive for perfection and order
- Detail and process oriented
- A love of sensory play
Folks with ADHD have:
- High energy levels
- Humour, playfulness, silliness
- Creative information processing
- Good adaptability to different environments
- Innovative and imaginative problem solving
For folks with Borderline Personality Disorder:
- Experience seeking, brave approach to life and novelty
- Strong ability to intuit and process social and emotional information
- Protective of people they love
- Loyal and committed to relationships
- Deep emotional experience that allows them to see the world through a different lens and be empathetic to others when calm
For folks with Down Syndrome:
- Strong visual awareness and visual learning skills.
- Ability to learn and use sign, gesture and visual support.
- Keen to communicate and socialise with others
- Often naturally more positive and happy
- Structure & routine
For Obsessive-Compulsive Individuals:
- Attentive to detail
- High degree of conscientiousness and empathy in social settings
- Meticulous task completion
- Cautious and thoughtful problem solving
- The OCD brain never stops, so put toward the right tasks it can spend hours theorizing, problem solving, and brainstorming creative solutions
- Strong memory
For every form of neurodivergence and for every single brain there are strengths and weaknesses. With 15-20% of the population existing with some form of neurodivergence, we as a society could all benefit from reframing these “disabilities” or “disorders” as simply differences and optimizing the world so that people with different brains can lend their own unique strengths and perspectives to the collective wellbeing of humanity!
How does this affect how we practice psychotherapy and counseling?
We strive to communicate and help you process in the way that works best for you and all of our therapists are highly educated in working with a broad spectrum of neurodiversity. We try to do the heavy lifting for you to assure therapy is as easy as it can be – whether that looks like stimming during therapy, changing how we communicate with you, walking and talking, or collaborating on self-advocacy and adaptations. We know learning and healing ourselves is already hard work and we want to make it as easy, adaptable, and accessible as possible!
If you want to learn to be a better ally here are some great resources to check out:
ADDitude Magazine: https://www.additudemag.com/
Therapist Neurodiversity Collective: https://therapistndc.org/
Neurodiversity Celebration Week: https://www.neurodiversityweek.com/